At RISE Colorado, an education nonprofit founded in 2012, we’ve created a model in which we train school leaders and teachers to educate families about the opportunity gap and their role in overcoming it. We then provide strategies for families to support their children’s learning and to be their children’s No. 1 teachers and advocates. We equip families with community-organizing skills and tools because we believe that when people have the opportunity to lead, they will make the right choices for their children and communities.
RISE was founded on the conviction that the families most affected by inequity—low-income families and families of color—must lead the movement for change. Too often, these families are invited in at the eleventh hour to wear a T-shirt, hold a sign, or testify on a bill. They need to be involved from the beginning in designing policies that will help their children. Their voices need to be heard at all stages in the policy and decisionmaking process.
In Aurora, Colo., where we work alongside families, more than 130 languages are spoken, more than half of students are Latino, and more than 65 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Only one in five elementary students can read and write at grade level, and it’s heartbreaking to see our students falling behind their peers.
We’ve reached more than 2,000 families through our programming. As families gather knowledge, skills, and tools from RISE workshops, they have an impact not only on their own children, but also children throughout the community. We ask families to reflect on the issues that affect them and then to envision, design, and implement solutions.
For example, preschool families wanted developmentally appropriate resources, or “homework,” that they could use year-round because parents knew about the kindergarten-readiness gap. Families organized and met with teachers, principals, district officials, school board members, and the district’s director of early-childhood education. After more than a year, parents have the materials they requested, and preschool staff and parent handbooks now explain that families are to receive developmentally appropriate resources to support their children’s learning.
Aurora is also an official refugee-resettlement city with many undocumented immigrants. Since the 2016 election, many families have been worried about their and their children’s safety on school property. In response, they drafted a resolution, which passed with a 7-0 vote by the board of education this month, to keep the Aurora public school system a safe and inclusive community. Among other things, the resolution encourages schools to partner with community-based and legal-service organizations to provide resources and information to immigrant students and families at all district facilities, and to translate and distribute a memo on how the district will respond to requests from immigration and customs-enforcement officials in the top 10 languages spoken in the district.
Aurora still has too few opportunities for families to be involved in decisionmaking. Since these opportunities rarely exist at a local level, it’s no surprise that they also do not exist at the state level. My challenge to state leaders is this: How can we see families as crucial partners and allies whom we are doing things with, instead of to?
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Empowering Families to Lead